#MCN50 Voices: Carolyn Royston & Annelisa Stephan on Having Better Conversations about Digital

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

In this post—the last one before the conference—Annelisa Stephan and Carolyn Royston ask some key questions for their own careers and for the field. How do you grow in a museum digital career if you’ve been in the field for 15 or 20 years? How can museum digital folks break out of silos to help solve challenges that really matter? How can we open up better conversations about digital?

Carolyn (above, right)  is director of digital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and outgoing president of MCN; Annelisa is manager for digital engagement at the Getty. They’re both interested in digital literacy, content strategy, and cats. Also, they’re both finishing up midlife crises—which applies directly to digital, we swear.


Annelisa: Let’s get right to it. Midlife crisis.

Carolyn: My midlife crisis involved moving to the US in December 2015. Out of the blue, I had the opportunity to move back here after 30 years. I decided to take the big step and made my cats come with me as well. In all honesty, I didn’t really appreciate how big a move it would be to make at 50.

Annelisa: What precipitated the change?

Carolyn: An interesting job offer at the Gardner Museum and the chance to experience working in a US museum (thanks to Erin Coburn and Jane Alexander for recommending me). A move back to New England (I went to college there) and I didn’t want to look back and regret that I hadn’t given it a try.

Carolyn: How about you?

Annelisa: Since a good friend of mine died, I’ve been really interested in tidying my life: radically scaling down to only things that matter, which is a process of figuring out what those things are and jettisoning the rest. No filler.

Carolyn: So really thinking about what’s important and where can you have the most impact. Are you applying that thinking to your work as well? When you get a project you think is filler, how do you manage that?

Annelisa: Usually there’s wiggle room: Who are we doing this for? Why? What form is it going to take? That’s self-evident, of course, but to make that a consistent practice became very compelling for me all of a sudden. When I turned 46, I realized that I was more than halfway to 90, and that freaked me out a little. I started having some…different thoughts.

Carolyn: When I turned 50, I thought if I’m going to change something, I need to do it now.

In the last couple of years, I’ve really been thinking about what that means for me as a digital person working in museums. And increasingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really even want to have “digital” in my title anymore. I think our work is now about how to be part of an integrated approach with the physical and the human and the digital—they all have to work together. What we’re working on is creating a holistic visitor experience, whether that’s online or on-site, and how those pieces fit together. There’s no rocket science in what I’m saying, and I know that lots of organizations are working in this way, but I think it’s still very, very difficult to achieve.

Annelisa: I agree, and feel the same way about titles. Anything that foregrounds digital makes it into a thing, and it’s not a thing, it’s a tactic. What is it a tactic for? We foreground nouns like video, app, social, web. They become a box to fill, as opposed to a tactic that may or may not be appropriate for what we’re trying to do.

Carolyn: Absolutely. I think the structures we’re working in are for the most part outmoded, and our roles, along with others, are much more fluid now. That has been the biggest realization: I’m actually less interested in the digital and more interested in how digital fits in as one of many things. How do we think about things in a more holistic way? How do we organize ourselves internally to better facilitate and manage those conversations? It needs vision and leadership from the top and an empowered staff working together with a common purpose.

For example, I still find myself having conversations about why we are just creating content for the web over here, and then creating really similar content for print over there? Why aren’t we thinking about what we’re doing together, and why are we still the people having to drive that change and ask the questions? This is not complex, but somehow seems incredibly difficult to solve.

Annelisa: When digital people ask questions like those, are we seen as stepping beyond the areas we’re allowed to have an opinion about?

Carolyn: I think it depends where you are working, but yes, I think it can be seen as being “difficult.” We still feel like we are on the margins, when actually everything that we’re doing is core to what the museum does. Even after all this time working in museums, I’m still having to deal with these same organizational and leadership issues.

Annelisa: It sounds to me like you want a more strategic leadership role. Is that something that “formerly digital” people might be able to aspire to?

Carolyn: I think I’ve got to the stage where I’d like to see if I could put some of what I think about leadership, organizations, and ways of working into practice. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be a Getty Leadership Institute 2017 participant. I met some fabulous people and was totally inspired. It was amazing to have the luxury of spending two weeks thinking about leadership and my own learning and development. I came away thinking that I’d like to either lead a small organization or have more of a leadership and vision role in a museum, rather than a “digital” one. I think it’s just a natural evolution of doing this for a long time and having the breadth of experience working in national museums in the UK, with several different museums and arts organizations when I was consulting, and now having the US experience. I’m so interested in strategy and big thinking, new ways of working, staff skills development, and visitor experience. I’d love to be able to put all that together to shape an organization and take it forward.

Annelisa: Before this conversation we were chatting about some of the challenging digital conversations that we keep having, and what conversations we might like to have instead. Let’s compare notes.

Here’s one: the idea that the latest technology is going to make us hip and relevant. When I started, the hip and relevant thing was email marketing, which is hilarious now, right? Then it was web, then apps, then social, then video, now maybe VR/AR. I don’t want to have a conversation about a tool, I want to talk about the intent of the tool. Another one is talking about content as an end-product and not as a tactic. Shoveling content into rectangles is not the same as strategic activity.

Or that conversation about how long it takes to make stuff. I’ve worked on blog posts that literally took 30 hours. How could that possibly be? Images have to come from somewhere, texts have to get written. Writing is hard, editing is hard. Making good-quality material is time consuming.

Another conversation I find challenging is when digital is seen as purely marketing or PR—not a tool to accomplish the mission. Maybe this gets to the issue of digital folks (not) moving into leadership.

Carolyn: I agree with all of those things. My big one is around the holistic nature of the visitor experience. Digital is part of that, and yet so often we’re not included in that conversation at the right time, or we’re brought in because we’ve got to implement some kind of “digital” tool that will fix everything.

Like you, I’ve just seen a lot of change over 20 years, and shiny-object syndrome is still there. There’s still a lack of understanding at a senior level around basic infrastructure that needs to be supported, as well as what it takes to resource that. Maybe there will always be that tension?

Annelisa: A downside of the shiny is, who’s caring for these things we’ve already made? We talk about things we’ve already built as operational load, as opposed to stewardship. As I get older, stewardship becomes more important to me. All of us over age 40 have a landscape littered with broken Flash microsites, decayed apps, and god knows what else.

Annelisa: What conversations would you rather be having?

Carolyn: I’d rather be having a conversation around what might be more effective organizational structures. What different ways might we be organized that better reflect the way we work and enables us to work more efficiently so that we can be more effective and more impactful? What would it take to take for museums to take some risks around that?

I’d also like to have a conversation about what the career of a digital person in a museum looks like today. So many of us don’t come from traditional technology backgrounds, how do we forge a career pathway in the current organizational structures that we are working in?

And finally, how do we continue to build digital capacity in our museums? And help our staff to build the confidence to use digital instinctively in their work? I’m incredibly excited about a newly funded project in the UK that I helped to initiate with Dr. Ross Parry at the University of Leicester. Over the next two and a half years, the project will create a digital literacy framework for UK museums. I’m hoping that it’s something that can be mirrored here in the US, and I’m already thinking about how to make that happen.

Annelisa: I’m interested in all of those things. I’m also interested in talking about what the purpose of a museum is now and who we’re for, what change we want to make in the world, if any, and how digital plays into that at the ground floor.

Carolyn: Here’s another conversation I’d like to have: If we as practitioners are realizing that we have to work in a much more holistic way across our organizations, how can MCN as a professional body collaborate with other professional organizations like AAM, AAMC and AAMD to forge relationships and go into each other’s spaces a bit more? So often, we’re just talking to ourselves. Like you and I are right now.

Annelisa: Ha! Yes, we need to own our own responsibility for self-siloing. We feel comfortable with other technologists. Every year at MCN I hear us say we should have more curators on board. The same conversations we’re having about visitor experience, and equity, and what a museum is for, are being held at AAMC, but we’re not there.

Carolyn: As I step out of MCN, what I’d like to see happening moving forward is more opportunities for cross-fertilization between professional groups.

Annelisa: I’d add that travel funding is increasingly hard to get, so there’s a lot of folks who can never make it to any of these conferences. How do we provide spaces for conversation for those staff?

Carolyn: As a field, I do think we still are having the same conversations. Maybe they’ve got a bit more sophisticated, maybe our voice is a bit louder, but I still fundamentally feel like digital is a function—we need a website, we need social media, we need a CRM, but actually those are all just means of delivery, systems. I’m still not sure that we are seen as people who should be part of the conversation or positioned at the right level so that we can contribute strategically to show how these systems fit together, and about how they contribute to a holistic, integrated visitor experience.

Annelisa: What I really like about having been at the Getty for a long time is that I have wonderful colleagues and friends in other departments, like education and curatorial, who are ambassadors for these same messages—so it’s not just the annoying digital person going, “But wait, what about strategy?” All of us have been around long enough that we’re getting serious about where we’re spending our time, what we’re trying to do, and how we’re measuring it.

Annelisa: Tell us your best piece of advice for breaking out of the digital silo.

Carolyn: Doing a visitor journey-mapping project was a great example of really understanding how what I do fits in with other things. Out of that, we formed a visitor-experience steering group. Now I have lot more conversations about non-digital things, but where digital might be able to solve a problem, for the visitor or institutionally.

I had to be proactive about suggesting visitor journey mapping, even though it wasn’t a digital project, and then explain to everybody why it was a useful project for me to do when I was thinking about the website and about the on-site digital interpretation here.

What’s your best strategy?

Annelisa: Changing the way I talk about what I do, and about digital. I cringe when I think about all the times I did evangelism for digital, for social. I don’t do that anymore. I want to hear the aspirations of my colleagues, and then think about whether digital can help with those. A lot less talking about digital and a lot more listening. And a lot of prompting the difficult questions—maybe sometimes in an irritating way, I’m not sure—but people are really eager to talk about those.

I’m working on myself, is the short answer.

Carolyn: The interesting thing for both of us is that we’ve seen our roles evolve. You can’t just stay the same—you have to change and adapt. I still love the idea of working in a museum and being a change agent.